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Council Overturns Landmark Status, Debates Commission’s Powers

By Ann K. Williams
Staff Writer

July 14 -- Using the opportunity to debate whether the Landmarks Commission is using its powers to stop development, the City Council Tuesday night reversed the commission’s decision to save a modest California bungalow.

The 5 to 2 vote came after City staff mounted a two-pronged attack, arguing that the commission had dangerously broadened its definitions of a landmark and that the unassuming structure built in the 1920's did not qualify.

While the council couldn’t formally rule on whether the commission was abusing its powers, the majority agreed with staff that the house was not worthy of being preserved, a decision that paves the way for 19th Street Townhomes, LLC to demolish the property.

"There are many variations of craftsman throughout the city,’ said Mayor Pam O’Connor, who is a historical preservationist. “What makes this one important? Charming, unusual does not make historic."

Bungalow at 921 19th Street which lost its landmark status Tuesday night. (Photo by Gene Williams)

While both sides were quick to praise the commissioners as hardworking, highly skilled professionals whose decisions were motivated by integrity, there was substantial disagreement about whether they were using their powers to halt development.

O'Connor argued that the commission was setting the bar too low for landmark designation.

"If we're going to be using the criteria that if you're the last house on the block, if you're the last one in the neighborhood and you happen to have architectural integrity that makes you a landmark, I think that would be setting a very low threshold," O'Connor said.

"I do find it troubling that the threshold is getting lower and lower." O'Connor added, joking that the trend might force her out of a job if "a pattern of applying too low a threshold really will start diluting what historical preservation is about."

"My threshold is somewhat lower," countered Council member Ken Genser, who voted to deny the appeal of the commission’s decision to designate the home a landmark. "I see so much of the historic flavor of these neighborhoods eroding."

Preserving a "sampling" of houses like the one in question Tuesday "is important for our collective memory. Our sense of community starts to really disappear," Genser said.

Council member Kevin McKeown, who voted with Genser to uphold the commission’s decision, agreed.

“We seem to be losing the history of our community,” McKeown said. “Perhaps the problem is we’re letting property like this one become the last one on the block too easily.”

Genser and McKeown criticized the staff report, which accused the Landmarks Commission of using the landmark designation process to “halt development rather than as means to protect and recognize the City's cultural heritage.”

"I think this is introducing a level of political rhetoric I wouldn't expect to see in a staff report," Genser said.

"Inadvertently staff is at least hinting that the Landmarks Commission acted out of motives other than the ones they are supposed to have," McKeown said.

Landmarks Commission Chair Roger Genser, a distant relative of the council member, said he and his fellow commissioners were acting in good faith and took "umbrage" at the "implications of the staff report."

"I think it's a misplaced accusation and I resent it," Commissioner Genser said after the meeting.

City Manager Susan McCarthy defended her staff.

"I think the staff would not be carrying out its responsibility to you if they did not point out when there's about to be a fairly significant change in the standard applied," McCarthy said.

"We believe it is a policy shift and it has implications for future potential designations," McCarthy said, adding that she regretted if the staff report's "wording was inartful."

Assistant City Attorney Joe Lawrence brought the issue back to the designation of the house in question.

"The City Council's job tonight is to apply the law for the particular facts of this particular situation,” Lawrence said, “not to interject the broader ramifications of any particular decision to any other situation that may come up in the future."

The appellant, 19th Street Townhomes represented by attorney Michael Klein, agreed.

"My client is not raising any policy issues here,” Klein said. “Their position is quite simple, that this house doesn't meet the criteria for designation as a landmark. The only 'dissing' (of the commission) here will be the disagreement," he added.

"This just isn't a special, unusual, unique building," Klein said, noting that the property was not listed on the City's 1992-93 Historic Resources Inventory by preservation expert Leslie Heumann. Klein cited a letter by Heumann to bolster his case.

This prompted Council member Genser to rip into Klein's use of expert testimony, which included a letter to the editor from former Planning Commissioner Eric Parlee and a column in The Lookout by its columnist Frank Gruber.

"Do you consider Frank Gruber and Eric Parlee architectural preservation experts?" Genser asked. He referred to the rest of Klein's evidence as "photos of a lot of bungalows."

Architectural historian and commission member Ruthann Lehrer disagreed with Klein's assessment of the property, calling the house "pristine and a beautifully articulated example of craftsman bungalow style, a modest vernacular building," adding that "this one has very special qualities."

Real estate developers, landlords and homeowners, however, have been frustrated in the past by what they see as attempts to manipulate the landmark designation process in order to thwart their attempts to build and redevelop their properties.

In March, 2003, property owners and developers were dealt a blow when Proposition A, which would have required the permission of homeowners to have their property "landmarked, went down to defeat.

According to the Landmark Commission's list on its website, 16 structures were landmarked from 1975 to 1988, of which five -- fewer than a third -- were apparently houses or apartments.

Since 1989, 44 structures joined the landmark and "structures of merit" list, of which 33 -- or three-fourths of all protected structures -- were apparently houses or apartments.

But Commissioner Genser noted that less than 1 per cent of the buildings his commission looks at are even considered for landmark status. The rest are demolished without even a "second look."

"We do our best job,” Genser said. “It's not an anti-development position. We just look at the facts."

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